Spreading a Love for Good Bread
September 23, 2008
By Jane Ayer
An Edmonton baker infuses passion into every loaf.
"Close your eyes. Bite into a slice of Tree Stone bread.
Taste the beauty of a blue Alberta sky,
The natural goodness of a shining wheat field
And savour the pleasure Tree Stone offers."
Statement from Tree Stone Bakery brochure
|Nancy Rubuliak is the owner, operator and baker of Tree Stone Bakery in Edmonton.|
Tree Stone Bakery recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. But the roots of the Edmonton artisan bread bakery run deeper than that. Its origins trace back to the mid-’80s, when Tree Stone owner Nancy Rubuliak spent a year travelling and soaking up the sights, sounds and, most importantly, the tastes of Europe. What really
impressed her was not only that different countries offered varied bakery products, but also that regions and towns and even individual bakeries produced baked goods, and particularly breads, with signature tastes and characteristics. In many respects, they amounted to the very opposite of franchise operations characterized by predictability, consistency and uniformity.
“In Europe I learned a lot about food by paying attention. It left me wanting to learn more about breads. I believed I could do it – I realized that making good bread is not rocket science,” explains the Tree Stone proprietor sitting down for a breather after closing up her shop on 99th Street, a busy thoroughfare a few blocks north of Whyte Avenue in Edmonton’s trendy Old Strathcona district.
While the European experience had planted the idea of someday starting her own bakery and making the French sourdough breads that now form Rubuliak’s stock-in-trade, the concept took some time to leaven. She returned Canada to work within her then chosen field as a registered social worker.
Baking bread may not be rocket science, but Rubuliak figured some expert advice would be useful. So, in 1997, she enrolled in a course given by bread guru Didier Rosada at the National Baking Center in Minneapolis. That was followed by a three-month renovation project to convert and rewire what had been a street-level print shop to house a two-deck, six-pan oven and other bakery equipment. (That has been followed by two expansions into adjacent premises to accommodate a small café and a four-deck Miwe oven with a loader.)
While she approached the venture in a businesslike way – complete with a business plan and the intent of earning a living – Rubuliak admits she was heading out on a wider adventure. Like braided bread, the business goals had several strands. A central mission was making good, nourishing bread that people really would enjoy eating.
On yet another level, Rubuliak concedes, “I really wanted to do something that would serve the planet.”
At one time, she considered making that connection with the earth through farming but ultimately decided that she could achieve a similar link by caringly shaping products from what the land offered.
That earthly connection even came into play in choosing Tree Stone as the business title. Rubuliak sees the name as symbolizing life represented by a tree and by the earth on which that life rests.
That down-to-earth approach is evident throughout Tree Stone Bakery’s operation. For instance, wheat and rye used in whole-grain products are grown by two Edmonton-area organic producers and then are ground in-house at Tree Stone. White flour comes from organically certified mills in Lethbridge, and Camrose, southeast of Edmonton. While Rubuliak didn’t set out to meet such targets – and in fact began her business before the concept gained much of its current popularity – many of her ingredients satisfy the criteria of the 100-mile diet.
Ongoing and strong links with suppliers help ensure the quality of Tree Stone inputs and reflect the kind of relationship-building Rubuliak also extends to customers.
At one time, she may have envisioned setting up a “neighbourhood bread shop.” In fact, her base of customers – many of whom have European backgrounds and a strong appreciation for good bread – extends far beyond the immediate Strathcona area. Some regular customers definitely break the 100-mile-diet rule by travelling from as far away as Calgary. Mostly, the reputation of bread that pleases the pallet has been spread by word of mouth.
“The only way to make it was to specialize and to make it better – Grade A,” Rubuliak insists. “Our prices are definitely higher than in supermarkets – we bake for people who really care about bread.”
What customers find is an intentionally fairly restricted selection of about a dozen types of hand-formed breads – including white, whole wheat, multigrain, baguettes, country rye and maslin. No additives or preservatives are used and most of the breads are proofed using wild yeast (pain au levain) cultures. Visitors to the Tree Stone can enjoy a coffee and some brioche – one of the few concessions for those with a sweet tooth – in the adjacent café.
“We are definitely not a full-line operation,” Rubuliak observes. There are other ways in which Tree Stone differs from other bakeries, which thanks to an overnight shift may have fully stocked shelves first thing in the morning. Nancy Rubuliak typically begins work at 5 a.m. and usually continues baking until the early afternoon.
Reliance on the slower sourdough techniques, rather than faster-rising baker’s yeast, also tends to stretch out production. The result can be that customers think the store is sold out, only to be encouraged, “Please come back in an hour, we’ll have something then.”
For Rubuliak, this somewhat flexible production schedule partly stems from self-preservation. She plays a central role in running the store – including not only baking but also serving the goods. Even with a five o’clock start, it’s not unusual for Rubuliak’s day to run till 6 p.m.
Along with many other Alberta business operators, Rubuliak shares the challenge of finding and retaining good staff. That’s particularly true when it comes to hiring experienced bakers but also extends to sales personnel. Shortages have become all the more acute in recent years amid the province’s bubbling-hot energy boom.
For seven years, Rubuliak was fortunate to retain the services of a young woman she herself trained in the craft. Following that employee’s departure last December, Rubuliak has tried without success to hire suitable journeymen bakers. Generally they have the sort of commercial experience that doesn’t fit well in a very hands-on artisan operation.
For Rubuliak, difficulty in hiring the right people has meant, “I can’t produce enough to meet demand.”
Recently, she took on a new apprentice with a view to again sharing her knowledge, as well as her love and commitment to making good bread. That passion has not gone stale after a decade of running Tree Stone.
“I have worked to make the best bread possible. It’s been a great experience and it has given me a lot personal satisfaction – it’s really a life-giving work.”
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